The International Writers Magazine: Living in Oblivion
On Being Homeless
Yesterday I learned a lesson I hope I don’t soon forget. It has given me a feeling that’s been bothering me all day - nagging me and ridiculing me. I realize what a jerk I can be sometimes - what jerks we ALL can be. I just had to type this out for some sort of catharsis, a confession of sorts.
About a week or so ago, a friend posted a link to an article about an experiment in offering credit cards to panhandlers. The idea is that someone would hand over a pre-paid credit card to a “beggar” and tell them to buy what they needed and return the card. The results were mixed, but I thought it was an interesting concept. It really got me to thinking. Read the article if you’re so inclined. (http://www.thestar.com/iphone/news/gta/article/854018--how-panhandlers-use-free-credit-cards?bn=1)
Let me also set the stage by saying that I am blessed with a wonderful job that sends me around the world to some really cool places. I’m currently on a project in one of the nicest cities in Europe , on expenses, staying in a very nice hotel, etc. I have whatever I need provided to me. Not bragging - but it’s integral to how shitty I feel at the moment.
So in this city (Bath, England), which is a popular tourist destination, there are a handful of regular panhandlers. Some of them are obviously addicts of some sort, glassy-eyed and incoherent when they ask people on the street for spare change. Some seem “unstable” or mentally challenged, the equivalent of the Cat Lady on The Simpsons. Others just don’t seem to care whether or not anyone helps them; they’re disrespectful and occasionally downright mean. To be honest, I’ve mostly stopped noticing which are which.
Like many people, I’ve been culturally trained to Always Say No when asked for money. I truly feel for some of these people, but “common sense” says that you just don’t give them anything. Be honest, you’ve done it, too - kept your eyes straight ahead and maybe even picked up your pace a little when you spot one.
So yesterday afternoon, I walked out of a pub having just absolutely gorged on a wonderful meal. Butternut Squash soup, Chickpea Tagine with couscous, Olives, and two Ciders. I was fat and happy. I even had my iPad with me and had been playing games and browsing the internet while eating. Great fun. So I walked out the pub to spot one of the local beggars sitting on the sidewalk outside. I’d seen her around lots, and it struck me that she was always smiling - I assumed due to a mental condition that left her unable to comprehend her state. She looks to be in her early 50’s. I’d later find out that she’s 38. Being fat and happy, and having that article floating around somewhere in the back of my head - I decided to break my rule and give her the change I had in my pocket. English coins are heavy to carry around anyway so I was happy to be rid of them. So I pulled out the change I had, which amounted to about 80p ($1.25) and placed it in her hand. She smiled and politely said “Thank You” and I began to walk away.
As I was about three paces away, she called out to me and pointed out that in the process of giving her the change, I’d dropped a 5 Pound note on the ground (about $7.75). I was stunned. She EASILY could have scooped it up and kept it and I guarantee I never would have noticed it was gone, or even remembered that I’d had it.
What to do? I gave her the money, of course.
But I did more. I decided I wanted to find out more about this person. Not being particularly shy, I plonked myself down next to her and began to ask her some questions. I got some really strange looks from people on the street. The contrast between the two of us must have been too much to bear for some of them. I think at one point a man was about to offer me some change, but at the last second he noticed my watch, or perhaps my North Face backpack holding my iPad.
Anyway, about this “beggar”: Her name is Nikki. She has a Psychology degree. She is extremely articulate and well-spoken. She comes from a middle-class family, but unfortunately her parents have both died. Nikki told me that she lives in a second-hand tent in the woods at the edge of town and that it’s unfortunately developed a hole so she gets wet whenever it rains. She’s married, but her husband was beating her and she decided to leave, despite having nowhere else to go. He has now moved, but she doesn't know where.
She desperately wants to get a job, but no one will hire her because she has no mailing address to put on the applications. She has taken up selling a newspaper sponsored by a local charitable organization, but the income from that is barely enough to keep her fed.
Nikki told me that she begs for money only when necessary to feed herself or buy essential supplies. She said she was saving up for duct tape to fix her tent - something she could now buy with the money I gave her. As she was telling me this, she paused occasionally to thank me again.
We talked for well over an hour. We talked about books we’ve both read and about her travels to America and Canada when she was younger. She told me about the abuse she faces from the local population. She’s been beaten up, kicked, propositioned, and every other humiliating thing imaginable.
I was pretty much stunned by all this and started feeling like the schmuck that I guess I am. I’d totally misjudged her.
With the “credit card” article still bouncing around my head, I convinced Nikki to come with me to the grocery store about a block away. I took her in and told her to pick out whatever she wanted and I would buy it for her. No limit. She didn’t believe me at first, but I eventually convinced her that I was serious. In the end, she picked out exactly the following items:
A juice box, a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste.
This is 100% true.
After quite a bit more convincing, I persuaded Nikki to let me buy her a hot meal. We went to the pizza restaurant where she insisted we sit at an outside table. I think she was self-conscious about her appearance (and smell). The waiter at the restaurant obviously recognized her and gave her a look of disgust, and me a look of disbelief. I ordered a pizza and a salad for Nikki. She was almost crying as she ate it. She said the last meal she’d eaten with a fork and knife was about 6 months ago. She was so thankful, and incredibly respectful.
Eventually, I asked Nikki why she was always smiling. She said, “Why wouldn’t I? I consider myself a very fortunate person!”
After the meal, I said goodbye to a tearful Nikki, gave her all the cash in my wallet (about 45 Pounds) and came back to my hotel room and stared at the ceiling in disbelief for about 3 hours.
There’s no good way for me to end this story and maybe there’s not even a point. I just wanted to share my experience.
If you know someone who needs help like this women - Shelter is the Charity that can help:
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